Government News Analysis

Tricky affairs in the neighbourhood

Fixing fractured relations with its Asian neighbours – pressing problems with China, Indonesia and Malaysia front and centre – will be prioritised by the Philippines incoming Foreign Secretary, Perfecto Yasay, when he takes over from acting secretary, Jose Rene Dimataga Almendras, at the end of June.

Yasay is thought to be a caretaker appointment. The top position at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), it’s believed, will eventually go to Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who ran unsuccessfully for vice president on President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte’s ticket in the May elections. He is currently under a ban to take up the appointment. Under Section 6, Article IXB of the 1987 Constitution, a period of 12 months has to elapse before a candidate who made a failed bid for office can take up a government position.

China, Indonesia and Malaysia each have very serious issues with the Philippines right now – and they are issues which could also affect the country’s relationships with the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Here’s a brief summary of the problems which the Philippines faces in its external affairs.

The China problem. This concerns Scarborough Shoal, a group of South China Sea sand and gravel bars which both countries claim as their territory. The history to these claims is long and involved – what is important here is the current state of affairs. Tensions escalated under the presidency of Benigno Aquino who wound up the nationalist rhetoric in April 2012 following a failed attempt to arrest Chinese fishermen in the area. In 2013, he filed a suit against China with The Permanent Court of Arbitration which sits in The Hague.

Last October the court agreed to hear the case and its judgement is expected at any time. Beijing has preemptively rejected any decision that the court makes. Furthermore, it’s unclear how any ruling made by the court could be enforced. The suggestion has been that the US Navy will steam in, but that would seem extremely unlikely given the US’ new lack of appetite for conflict and its own issues with China.

While China has stated that it will establish an outpost on Scarborough Shoal this year, disputes with the Mainland over another group of islands, the Spratlys, are also ongoing.

The Philippines foreign relations with the Mainland, however is one thing; its relationships within Asean are another, and The China problem has found its way there. To date, some 40 countries, including the Arab League, are supporting the Mainland’s position on the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Asean members, Cambodia and Laos have repeatedly failed to endorse the Philippines’ claim – and, given the amount of investment which China is pumping into those two countries, they are unlikely to change their position. Brunei (which has its own disputes with China over the Spratly Islands), also won’t be drawn on the issue.

And while Beijing, through its Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, says that the South China Sea problems are not a China-Asean dispute and “should not affect China-ASEAN relations,” Asean, itself regards the stand-off over Scarborough Shoal and other maritime disputes in the region as a threat to Asean stability.

Our understanding is that the new administration will take a more pragmatic approach with China on this issue. President-Elect, Rodrigo Duterte, has voiced doubts about the arbitration hearing and is known to favour direct negotiations with Beijing in a bid to draw much-needed infrastructure investment.

The Indonesia problem. Maintaining maritime safety in the waters of the Sulu Sea between Asean members, Indonesia and the Philippines has become a major difficulty for the government in Jakarta. The issue revolves around the kidnapping of Indonesian seamen by the militant southern Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

The latest of these incidents happened on 20 June when seven crewmen were taken by the group from a tugboat and barge operating in the waters. Earlier this year, 14 Indonesian crewmen were seized by ASG in two separate incidents. They were later released. Though unconfirmed, it’s believed the Philippine Government negotiated a ransom payment of US$1.04 million (PHP50 million).

The latest abductions have angered Jakarta. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, said she “condemns the repeated kidnappings of Indonesian citizens by armed groups in the southern Philippines … This third incident cannot be tolerated”.

Marsudi has made it clear that her government will not tolerate the lawlessness in the Sulu Sea, calling on Manila to do more to tackle extremist groups. “The Indonesian Government asks the Philippines Government to ensure the safety in the waters of the southern Philippines so that the economy in the region will not be disturbed”.

Duterte is expected to take a hard line with ASG, and other militant organisations in southern and western Mindanao – Terror threat to tour and travel trade – and has warned the group that there will be “a day of reckoning”. His predecessor, Benigno Aquino had promised to “neutralise” the ASG, which is presently holding more than 20 foreign hostages, before the end of his term.

The Malaysia problem. As with Indonesia, Asean partner, Malaysia, also has problems with the Philippines over sea safety. In April, four Malaysia nationals were taken from a boat as it was returning to Malaysia from the Philippines. Although not confirmed, it’s believed ASG was responsible for the attack. This was the second hostage-taking of Malaysia seamen in a month.

Last year, Malaysian national, Bernard Then, was snatched from a restaurant on the Malaysian island of Sabah – 300 kilometers west of ASG’s Jolo Island stronghold. He was later beheaded. In April 2000, ASG abducted 21 European and Asian tourists from a Sabah dive resort. They were released as ransoms were paid. As with Indonesia, the Malaysia Government has called on the Philippine Government to tighten its control over the waters between the two countries.

Sabah presents other foreign-relations difficulties for the new DFA chief. Known as the North Borneo Dispute, the Philippines’ territorial claims for much of the east side of the island have been going on since 1878. In 1963, Manila broke off diplomatic relations with Malaysia over the issue. In 2011, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that it upheld its country’s claim to the territory and that the claim may be pursued (by successive governments) in the future. Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founder and chairman, Nur Misuari, urged that the issue be taken to the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ). Misuari, who openly endorsed Duterte in his bid for the presidency – the first time the MNLF has supported a presidential candidate – is thought to be an adviser to the president on Mindanao’s insurgency problems.

In May, Duterte reiterated his country’s claim to the Sabah territory, adding that it would be pursued by peaceful means and that recourse to the ICJ was a possible path. Responding, Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was quoted by The Diplomat as saying that Duterte should instead work to resolve the MNLF insurgency in Sabah. “That certainly would be more productive than reigniting the Sabah claim issue,” he said.